Arsenal’s unbeaten run in knock-out ties against Italian sides in Europe came to an abrupt halt in the San Siro this evening as Arsene Wenger’s side suffered their heaviest ever defeat on the continent at the hands of AC Milan.
The 4-0 loss, courtesy of goals from Kevin Prince Boateng, a brace from Robinho and a Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty, mean the Gunners need a miracle at the Emirates to stay in this season’s Champions League.
Sporting last season’s yellow away kit, Arsene Wenger made clear that he was in a cautious mood by taking Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out of the starting line-up and pushing Tomas Rosicky into the left wing slot. At the back Kieran Gibbs returned for the first time in four months, while Thomas Vermaelen moved into the centre of defence next to Koscielny.
We made a bright enough start. Inside two minutes Rosicky skipped past Mark van Bommel before unleashing one of his characteristically wayward efforts. Clarence Seedorf, who’d had kind things to say about the Gunners pre-game, was substituted after just eleven minutes. Urby Emanuelson, another former Ajax man, replaced him on the left side of the Milan midfield and immediately came close to opening the scoring with a first time effort inside the box following a knock down by Ibrahimovic.
After fifteen minutes we went 1-0 down and it was a goal which Wojciech Szczesny has to take responsibility for. Taking a goal kick short to Bacary Sagna the ball was laid back to the goalkeeper who made a real hash of an attempted long clearance. It fell straight to a Milan player who nipped the ball to Kevin Prince Boateng in the Gunners box, the ex-Spurs and Portsmouth man then crashed home a volley which completely stunned the Pole. It was a great finish, but the opportunity should never have come about.
Milan were on the up against an Arsenal side who were struggling to make an impact in the final third. Five minutes later another long range effort by Nocerino flew just over Szczesny’s bar. The nervousness at the back continued when a ball over the top saw Thomas Vermaelen hesitate over a clearance only for the referee to save his blushes by punishing Ibrahimovic for a push.
Our first effort on goal came on 24 minutes. A Van Persie free-kick clipped into the box was met by Koscielny, but the Frenchman’s tame header was easily claimed by Abbiati in the Milan goal.
Ahead of the game Arsene had made very clear he was unimpressed by the state of the San Siro pitch, it didn’t take long to see why. On both flanks the grass had been relaid and players from both sides struggled with their footing. While Milan played it safe at the back, choosing to clear from the full-back positions, on too many occasions the Gunners defence dallied on the troublesome turf. Vermaelen had a last gasp Koscielny challenge to thank after more uncharacteristically sloppy play from the Belgian saw Milan arrowing in on goal.
Eight minutes before half-time and Milan went 2-0 up. Bacary Sagna chose not to play to the whistle thinking the linesman would signal for an offside and Zlatan Ibrahimovic raced clear down the left wing. The Swede had all the time in the world to cross for Robinho who headed home from close range. There may have been doubts about whether Ibrahimovic was originally offside, but you can’t not track players.
To make matters worse Laurent Koscielny, who had been our best player, was forced from the field with an injury to be replaced by Johan Djourou. We were literally limping towards the half-time whistle when Boateng nearly scored a third, before brave keeping by Szczesny put off Antonini to ensure that the Gunners were only two down at the break.
It hadn’t been a good 45 minutes. There was no fluidity in the passing, Robin van Persie looked isolated and Milan not only looked disciplined, but very comfortable. Perhaps passive was the best way of describing a lacklustre showing by the men from North London.
Thierry Henry, in his final game of his loan spell, was sent on at the start of the second period in place of Walcott as the Gunners moved to a 4-3-2-1 formation with the Frenchman leading the way.
Despite the attacking intentions, Arsenal went 3-0 down on 48 minutes. A slip by Thomas Vermaelen, having a nightmare of a game, allowed Robinho a clear sight of goal on the edge of the area and the Brazilian lashed a low shot past Szczesny.
Despite having four central midfielders on the pitch, it was in the middle of the park that the game was being lost. Periods of possession were few and far between for Arsenal, while Milan didn’t come under nearly enough pressure when on the ball themselves.
Surviving something of an onslaught in the following minutes the Gunners made it to the hour mark without conceding another, but chances at the other end were few and far between. A Ramsey header from a corner was the slightest of highlights before Robin van Persie forced a tremendous save from Abbiati after a great volley.
Throwing caution to the wind Kieran Gibbs was subbed off, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on, Alex Song dropped into the centre of defence and Vermaelen moved to the left-back slot. With 20 minutes left we needed a goal. Another Van Persie volley, this time snatched with his right foot, was saved by Abbiati, but still Milan looked the more dangerous side and with twelve minutes left they duly won a contentious penalty.
Ibrahimovic skipped into the box, made contact with Johan Djourou and went down. The referee pointed to the spot and having raised himself from the turf the Swede smacked home from the spot. 4-0 and game over. 4-0 and most probably tie over.
There was still time for Rosicky to hit the corner flag with another attempt – the guy’s shooting is nothing short of appalling – before Abbiati again denied RVP, this time from a header. At full-time though you sensed that the result was fully deserved – certainly not something you want to say of such a heavy defeat. A chastening night.
It looks to be the end of the road in the Champions League. Obviously there are 90 minutes still to play, but even the most fervent optimist would struggle to hope for a turnaround of such epic proportions at the Emirates given tonight’s showing.
Let the inquest begin.